COVID 19 – Staying Vigilant and Budget Impacts
By Gregory T. Federspiel
We continue to devote considerable time and resources dealing with the pandemic as it impacts our community. As expected, the number of confirmed COVID cases is increasing. While daily updates at the county level are available from the state’s Department of Public Health, Manchester specific updates are being provided by our Board of Health every Wednesday morning, similar to many of our neighboring communities. While there tends to be a lot of interest in local numbers, daily updates locally do not have a lot of added public safety value – week to week trends are sufficient to tell us if our infections are increasing or not while respecting privacy concerns given our small population. Of course, many cases go untested thus, even with a relatively low number of verified cases in Manchester (9 as I write this), we know the virus is present more widely and continued vigilance regarding proper social distancing and strong personal hygiene practices are critical.
Larger than appropriate groups – whether a pick-up game or a group wanting to enjoy beach space together – continue to pose high risks, endanger our Police Officers who are called in to disperse and take up a disproportionate amount of their time. Please note that, unfortunately, all town beaches, parks and their parking lots are closed at this time. With warmer weather we all long to walk along a beach but because beaches become a draw for groups, we need to keep them closed for now. In the meantime, enjoy walks along our roads or woods trail (where possible, always face traffic thus avoiding close two-way foot traffic.) The BOH and the Selectmen are monitoring this policy weekly and will modify it as soon as they can.
Town departments remain operational despite Town Hall having to be closed. Many staff are able to work from home through newly established remote access. Rotating shifts have been established to ensure a healthy work crew is always available. Board and committee meetings are utilizing a virtual meeting platform and residents are engaging in large numbers – I suspect there will be a desire to continue to provide a similar option even when we are able to resume in-person meetings! Regular updates are provided on the Town’s web site and are place on the Town’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
New dates have been targeted for the Annual Town Meeting and the Annual Local Elections. Both will take place at the Middle-High School as the Memorial School will not be available given the construction schedule. The ATM is slated for Monday, June 22 and the Elections are to be held Tuesday, June 30th. Of course, this assumes we will be “in the clear” enough to hold these important community events.
While much of our energies have been focused on dealing with the immediate impacts of the virus, we know that there will be longer term impacts, particularly on the economy. The economic impacts are not known but they could be significant, and it behooves us to prepare alternative spending plans that are responsive to new economic realities. The Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen started this effort and will be working on a “Plan B” budget over the course of the next month.
The proposed FY21 budget that went to the printers just before the virus hit us assumed a healthy economy. It requires a 2.5% increase in property taxes. A consensus is emerging that an alternative budget based on, at most, level taxation, should be presented at the Annual Town Meeting for the new budget year that begins July 1, 2020. To accomplish this, we need to trim some $660,000 in tax funded expenditures out of a total of some $37 million.
There are many options to consider from deferring planned capital projects, reducing operating expenses where possible, voting to remove the Community Preservation surcharge of 1.5%, and/or drawing on a larger portion of the Town’s reserve funds.
Of course, each of these options, along with others that might be considered, have consequences. We will need to evaluate the various choices in short order to compile a Plan B budget that can be distributed along with the original Finance Committee report to all households in time for the new June date for the Annual Town Meeting. Your ideas are welcome. Please send them along to me and I will develop a list of suggestions for consideration to share with the community.
Like the pandemic itself, solving the likely new budget challenges coming our way requires a strong collective response. And like our battle against the pandemic, I am confident we will respond appropriately.